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The Pittsburgh Steelers survive in a diminished league

In today’s NFL, “elite teams” often look beatable while .500 teams have a shot at glory.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Owing to the massive enterprise and boatload of dollars at stake, criticism of the end product pro football fans receive on any given Sunday is largely drowned out by the NFL’s incessant tooting of its own horn. But looking at the current league standings as the Steelers enjoy a much-needed bye-week, it’s nearly impossible not to notice that the parity pursued by the league’s brain trust during the past 20 years appears to be reaching its logical-but-ugly conclusion. With Halloween just around the corner, the candy treats aren’t the only things getting smaller and less appetizing.

So far this season, 15 of 32 NFL teams have surrendered more points than they’ve scored. Five teams have won only a single game and — to no one’s surprise — the Detroit Lions own the booby prize as the NFL’s sole winless team. But what about the “upper crust?” The Chargers and Raiders, both at 4-2, share the lead in the AFC West despite scoring, in tandem, only one more point-for (PF) versus their combined points-against (PA). Meanwhile, the Titans (4-2) lead the AFC South while scoring only five more points than they’ve given up. In the AFC East, Buffalo is the only team with a winning record.

In the NFC, the Cowboys (5-1) are the only team in the East Division with a winning record. The Packers (also 5-1) are the only team in the NFC North with a winning record. But it’s difficult to fathom how the Pack managed to accomplish this record while scoring only 8 more points than they’ve surrendered since Opening Day. The Steelers and five other teams currently share identical 3-3 records, but who would have predicted in August that Pittsburgh would be stuck in the middle of the pack at this stage with AFC rivals Kansas City and Cleveland?

Buffalo currently has the best PF/PA ratio (+105) in the league, yet the Bills have already lost two games and are coming off of a demoralizing, Monday-night loss to Tennessee. The Arizona Cardinals are 6-0 with a PF/PA ratio of +85, but does anyone envision these upstarts knocking off Tom Brady and the Bucs should they meet in the conference championship? Going through the current NFL standings line by line, very few stats correspond in any meaningful way to the teams’ win/loss records.

But what does all this mean for the Steelers? As crazy as it sounds, it means the Black-and-Gold has at least as good a chance to earn a playoff berth as anyone else. But getting into the playoffs again and being summarily bounced as they were last season won’t satisfy Steelers Nation any more than if they finish at 5-12. Fans would still be calling for Tomlin’s head, telling Big Ben good riddance and wanting to fire the rest of the team and assistant coaches as well.

Pessimism is perennial but, for the incurable optimists out there, a remote possibility exists that this ugly-looking team might make a late-season bid as a true contender. But the only way that’ll happen is if Ben Roethlisberger stays in the lineup and caps his NFL career with a Hall of Fame performance in the remaining 11 games. A lot of people don’t believe that’s possible. No. 7’s improbable resurgence would need to be accompanied by T.J. Watt staying healthy plus significantly better play by the rest of a defense which appeared to be AWOL during the third quarter against Seattle.

While the contender scenario seems far-fetched for the Steelers we’ve been watching lately, if you take an unvarnished look at the rest of the league today, nobody looks anywhere close to invincible, not even the 6-0 Cardinals. More likely, the team that wins the Super Bowl next February will be the one that puts together a late-season surge as Tampa Bay did in 2020.

During the Steelers’ 1970s golden era, the NFL had several quality teams that competed every season for the big prize, but today it sure looks like the top has collapsed into the middle. Of course that’s exactly what the league wanted but, like Dr. Frankenstein, I doubt they ever envisioned the horror they were creating.